Friday, August 29, 2008

Environment Devastated by Russian Military Attacks

In addition to killing civilians, attacking and destroying both military and civilian infrastructures, the Russian military caused an ecological disaster in Georgia. According to the official as well as various international information sources and eyewitness reports, the Russian military attacks caused substantial negative impact on natural ecosystems of Georgia.

Although being far from conflict zones, three Protected Areas of Georgia are affected by military operations. These protected areas are: mountain forests of Borjomi-Kharagauli National Park (IUCN category 2) Terrestrial and marine parts of Kolkheti National Park (IUCN category 2) and riparian forests of Liakhvi Nature Reserve (IUCN category 1). Particularly high level damage is observed in the forests of the Borjomi-Kharagauli National Park and adjacent areas.

Forest fires:

Russia military bombing of Borjomi Forests and Borjomi-Kharagauli National park

On August 15, at approximately 15:30 local time, Russian military helicopters started bombing the bordering territories of the City of Borjomi and settlement of Tsemi using incendiary munitions - weapon prohibited by the international convention. The broad areas of precious forest have been set on fire and fifteen seats of fire have been broken out in southern part Georgia.

The Borjomi forests are located in a mountainous central part of Georgia that are internationally recognized as having great significance to the global biodiversity. The area has one of the most popular spa and ski resorts and is famous for its mineral waters. But most importantly, the site is located at least 100 km away from the South Ossetia conflict zone.

On August 18, the BTC pipeline patrol again detected breaking out fire soon after the Russian helicopters flew over the Borjomi Gorge. The fire became stronger and spread as the Russian military forces occupied large part of the country, including major highways and hindered transportation of Georgian fire brigades. In response to the Georgian Government's appeal for assistance to neighboring countries, Turkey and Ukraine expressed their readiness to provide help, however as of August 19, have not been given safe, timely and adequate corridor by the Russian military forces.

The Borjomi-Kharagauli National park is the first national park in the Caucasus established according to IUCN criteria by WWF. In the core zone of the national park, the protection regime exists more than hundred years. The park includes pristine forests, sub-alpine meadows and represents habitat for many endemic, rare and relict species; it is the largest area of endemic oriental spruce.

Due to the forest fires, biodiversity of the Borjomi-Kharagauli National Park has been seriously damaged and adjacent settlements and tourist resorts, as well as to the BTC oil pipeline and the South Caucasus gas pipeline are put at danger.

At present, according to preliminary estimations, around 350 ha of precious forest are burnt down in the Borjomi Gorge. The fire is still continuing.

Setting the fire in the national park and then creation of obstacles to extinguish the fire confirms that the Russian military intervention went beyond the local military operation and aimed at causing maximum damage to the population, economy and the nature. It is also important to note that fire bombs attack in Borjomi took place just after the President Medvedev signed the ceasefire agreement.

Black Sea:

Ecological Catastrophe caused by the oil spills by the Russian occupational forces in the Georgian coastal zone of the Black Sea

In addition, the Russian military attacks in western Georgia, i.e. blasting and sinking of Georgian vessels by the Russian forces in the Georgian Poti port, caused spilling of large amount of hydrocarbon (diesel and benzin) as well as hydraulic oil from the vessels.

Occupational forces did not allow the national environmental organizations to assess the situation on-site and determine quantity of oil spilled in the sea. According to the experts’ judgment, some 50-70 tons of oil were spilled in the Black Sea. Spilling of such large quantity of oil is unprecedented in the Georgia’s coastal zone of the Black Sea.

The port authorities and relevant institutions were not allowed by the Russian military forces to employ skimmer and containment booms, which made impossible to respond adequately to the spill and hindered minimizing damage on the environment.

The Black Sea current moved the spilled oil to the north of the city of Poti to the direction of the Kolkheti National Park and its protected sea zone. The Kolkheti National Park located 5 km north from the oil spill site is distinguished for its unique biodiversity and is a part of internationally recognized Ramsar protected sites

Since the Ministry of Environmental Protection and Natural Resources of Georgia and environmental organizations are not allowed to work on site (to go to the sea), it is rather difficult to indicate exact qualitative and quantitative parameters of environmental damage. However, considering the scale of oil spills, it is already possible to state that protected sea zone of the Kolkheti National Park and its surroundings are under ecological catastrophe, which could have serious negative impact on the whole Black Sea ecosystem.

Legal violations concerning Ecological Disaster caused by Russian attacks

By employing methods or means of warfare which are intended, or may be expected, to cause widespread, long-term and severe damage to the natural environment, the Russian Federation violated international obligations it has undertaken. Russia is a party to the 1949 Geneva Conventions and the two 1977 Additional Protocols of the Conventions. Paragraph 18 of the 1949 Geneva Conventions (ratified by Russia 10-05-1954) stipulates the following:

All armed forces, whether regular or irregular, should continue to observe the principles and rules of international environmental and humanitarian law to which the parties to the conflict are bound in times of peace. Natural and cultural resources shall not be pillaged under any circumstances.

In Additional Protocol I (ratified by Russia on 29-09-1989), Article 35 - Basic Rules - states:
It is prohibited to employ methods or means of warfare which are intended, or may be expected, to cause widespread, long-term and severe damage to the natural environment.

Also in Additional Protocol I, Article 55 - Protection of the Natural Environment - states:
  1. Care shall be taken in warfare to protect the natural environment against widespread, long-term and severe damage. This protection includes a prohibition of the use of methods or means of warfare which are intended or may be expected to cause such damage to the natural environment and thereby to prejudice the health or survival of the population.

  2. Attacks against the natural environment by way of reprisals are prohibited

With specific relevance to the Borjomi operation, Russia is also a party to the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons, Protocol III, Protocol on Prohibitions or Restrictions on the Use of Incendiary Weapons (Geneva, 1980) which states (among other things):
It is prohibited to make forests or other kinds of plant cover the object of attack by incendiary weapons except when such natural elements are used to cover, conceal or camouflage combatants or other military objectives, or are themselves military objectives.

As well, the Statute of the International Criminal Court, established by the 1998 Rome Statute, which entered into force on July 1, 2002, stipulates in Article 8(2)(b)(iv) that the following act may constitute a war crime:
Intentionally launching an attack in the knowledge that such an attack will cause incidental loss of life or injury to civilians or damage to civilian objects or widespread, long-term and severe damage to the natural environment which would be clearly excessive in relation to the concrete and direct overall military advantage anticipated.

And although Russia is not an official party to it, the Rome Statute and International Criminal Court is presumed to represent customary international law and to be respected as binding by all states. Under Article 8, individuals, including heads of state, can be held criminally accountable if an attack is intentional; inflicts widespread; long-term and severe environmental damage; and the attacker knew the damage would be excessive. This applies to individuals that commit, order, or aid in the commission of such attacks.

Other rules of customary international law that prohibit damage to the environment in warfare and are binding on all states (Bronkhorst and Koppe, 2007), include:
Firstly, a duty of care or an obligation to show due regard for the environment during international armed conflict; secondly, a prohibition to cause wanton destruction to the environment during international armed conflict; and thirdly, a prohibition to cause excessive collateral damage to the environment during international armed conflict.

Even in self-defense, states are prohibited from engaging in military operations that are either unnecessary or disproportionate.

Thus, if the reports of use of incendiary devices by the Russian military in the Borjomi region are accurate, then it is likely that Russia has violated the above provisions of international law. Such malicious behavior - intentionally inflicting significant and unnecessary environmental harm as a weapon of war - has no place in modern warfare, and cannot stand uncontested by the international community.

The consequences for an international wrongful act as stipulated in the Draft Articles on the Responsibility of States for Internationally Wrongful Acts, adopted by the International Law Commission November 2001 (discussed in Bronkhorst and Koppe, 2007) include:
The obligation to offer assurances and guarantees of non-repetition, the obligation to make full reparation for the injury caused by the internationally wrongful act, either by means of restitution, i.e. to re-establish the situation which existed before the wrongful act was committed, or by means of compensation insofar as such damage is not made good by restitution.

The Ministry of Environmental Protection and Natural Resources, Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Georgia, and national and international environmental organizations call upon the International Community to resolutely condemn Russian actions on Georgian soil and judge the relevancy of membership of the Russian Federation to such international environmental treaties as the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), the Convention of Protection of the Black Sea against Pollution, Ramsar Convention, CITES and others.